How to evaluate “dreams and vision”

Theologically, if someone comes to you with a “vision” from God, it’s not always easy to make sense of the situation. A lot of conservative evangelicals will write off any claim to dreams, prophecy, and visions as “well, we have a complete canon so that’s wrong because it, being a revelation, will contradict the revelation in God’s canon.” Before I get to the point of the post, I need to respond to this type of reasoning:

  1. This isn’t even a Reformed position. Many of the Puritans and covenanters believed in continationism.
  2. Not all of God’s revelation is written. The OT writers appeal to books that are no longer extant in writing; Paul appeals to oral tradition, and Jude thinks Enoch is inspired, which we probably don’t have.
  3. I don’t exactly see how it necessarily “contradicts” other Revelation. A contradiction is “A is ~”A, not “A is ~~A”. For example, if I say it is “both raining and not raining outside” that is a contradiction. If I say “it is raining and the table is green” that is not a contradiction.
  4. Apropos (3) the critic needs to show that the new revelation is a contradiction, and this is almost never done.
  5. Finally, as Wayne Grudem has shown, NT and post-NT prophecies never intended to function as on par with the canon.

So if someone comes to us with a vision, what do we make of it? Well, it depends on both what they are saying and what they urge, if anything the body of Christ to do as a result. I have two examples, and this illustrates one of the differences between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy (and some parts of Evangelicalism).

In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Virgin supposedly appeared to some women in Portugal. This is the origins of “Fatima.” While the exact contents of it are unknown in their entirety (see Malachi Martin, The Jesuits), one of the major points was that Russia must be dedicated to the Lady (or the Sacred Heart; I can’t remember which, but my point is the same). Never mind the ignoring of a thousand years of doctrinal controversy, this is a negative example of my point: someone’s (or people’s) private vision is being made binding on all of the church. Most importantly, doctrine and church practice are being normatized, not on the basis of Scripture or Church Councils, but on someone’s private interpretation.

This raises the obvious question: if church doctrine and visions are to proceed like this, how come we didn’t have any warning at Nicea (or any other council), or during the Eastern Schism or during the Time of the Three Popes?

A Roman Catholic could then respond, “Well, you guys hold to stuff like Diveyvo and the Elders’ Prophecies about the Revolution, what makes your visions different?” It’s an excellent question. Here goes:

  1. St Seraphim of Sarov and the Elders are merely saying what will happen. They are not actually making doctrine and practice binding on the Church apart from an Ecumenical Council.
  2. To the degree that the visions/prophecies urge practical living, it’s fairly basic stuff (repent; don’t put trust in human power structures, etc).
  3. Even the parts that seem to give concrete interpretations to the Apocalypse really aren’t arguing anything about doctrine and life that a Christian would reject, except perhaps the chronology.
  4. The visions actually happened, but they happened in a way that 1) proved and vindicated the holiness of the elders, but 2) didn’t violate the liturgical life of the church by binding everyone by a few visions.

The essay is no longer extant online, but many of my thoughts are extant from Fr Johnson’s essay on “Miracles and Easter.’ I am borrowing the criticisms of Fatima specifically from him. The thoughts on the Elders are taken from Seraphim Rose and others.